A House Divided | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

A House Divided

Two weeks ago, in a somewhat muddy 4-3 vote, Bend's City Council approved a $30 million water treatment facility, an important puzzle piece of a larger project, a $69 million modernization of Bend's water delivery and treatment infrastructure. At its core was a debate about whether to use membrane filtration technology—essentially, a high-tech sieve—to keep the city's drinking water clean; or, the other option, which received little attention or information from city staff, a less-expensive ultraviolet system that essentially burns off potential contaminants.

The debate has been languishing for some time, as a federal deadline to complete the project ticks closer. Yet, in spite of the long-running process, council members appeared largely uninformed about the two options, and unclear about the pros and cons for each. Moreover, political observers—and some elected officials—have complained that city staff is sacrificing a robust political discussion and process for the sake of the end result that they want—that is, the membrane filtration system and imminent completion of the water treatment facility. That sentiment was best summarized by one longtime project observer who said the decision was "far more political than scientific."

(And, as if to double-underscore the contentious nature of this massive infrastructure project, the city council vote came directly on the heels of another controversial decision concerning yet another large piece of the water project puzzle—the greenlight from the U.S. Forest Service to begin construction of a 10-mile-long pipeline from near Tumalo Falls, a 20-inch pipe that will replace two smaller diameter, decades-old pipes and will deliver the water to the treatment plant. That Forest Service decision, in turn, has since been formally challenged. Last Wednesday, a local conservation group filed an injunction in federal court to halt construction of the pipe; see News, "Who Will Speak for the Fish?," page 7.)

Starting the city's largest infrastructure project on an uncertain and wobbly foot is not an encouraging first step. Toward that end, we're giving The Boot to City Manager Eric King. We are not indicating that King has set the tone around this project, but we do urge him, as the captain of the ship, to go about the process of mending the hurt feelings so that the process can move forward with all—or, at least as many parties as possible—on board. Moreover, to make certain that the chain of command stays intact, with elected officials, not staffers at the Water Division, running the show.

That latter concern, that Water Division staffers are leading city council toward their desired end result—and, more broadly, without an opportunity for a fully vetted discussion—was on full display at the Nov. 6 city council meeting, and vote.

At one point, silence settled over council, whose members seemed overwhelmed and confused by the options for the water treatment facility. To be clear, they were about to vote on a multimillion dollar municipal project that will affect the city's health and environment for the next several decades, but were still unclear about the options.

Finally, Councilmember Victor Chudowsky spoke up: "We really are steering into a black hole," he complained, in regard to the UV option. "It's a really big grey area to me," he added, explaining that the comparative studies did not seem complete and that potential costs for UV filtration were not fully calculated. Later in the evening, he requested "more time to look over figures."

There are tens of millions of dollars at stake, and decisions made now will affect the city's infrastructure, environment and health for decades to come. With such an important and major city project, it is important that the process justifies—or at least supports—the end result; not vice versa. Moreover, without a consolatory tone moving forward, the fault lines that seem to be forming now could deepen and widen—a threat to the stability of the project and the genial tone at city hall.

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